As chair of the influential Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Washington Democrat has become a key negotiator with the Biden administration on imposing ambitious policies such as expanding entitlements and combating climate change.
While pushing for those priorities, Ms. Jayapal has clashed with the party establishment, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ms. Jayapal, 56, is among several contenders to replace Mrs. Pelosi, 82, as the top House Democrat. In that burgeoning competition, Ms. Jayapal has carved out a unique role as a commanding voice of the far left. The most liberal Democrats see the future of the party inextricably tied to the success of the Progressive Caucus, which is the largest ideological faction among House Democrats.
She got her start as a political organizer who helped her home city of Seattle enact some of the most expansive labor laws in the nation, including a move in 2014 that brought the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour. The law was credited with galvanizing a national effort to raise the minimum wage to the same level.
“There’s a lot of people who really don’t understand how our progressive policies here have really led the state and led the nation, and how we’ve continued to thrive,” Ms. Jayapal said in an interview with The Washington Times. “You raise the minimum wage, people do better. You provide child care, people do better and the country thrives.”
In Congress, Ms. Jayapal has sought to move her party to the left on an overhaul of government programs, including housing resources, universal prekindergarten and increased spending on child care and health care access.
Her biggest challenge in replacing Mrs. Pelosi is getting the support of the party’s centrists, from whom she has made a clear split.
She has openly criticized more moderate Democrats and previous leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm, for barring consultants and vendors from working for incumbents’ challengers. The rule hobbles primary election opponents from the left.
Ms. Jayapal proudly wears the label of “far left” to characterize how she sees the growing majority of the Democratic Party.
“What is the ‘far left?’ Progressives, who make up 40% of the Democratic caucus and the vast majority of the primary electorate? We will continue to push for our voice to be recognized,” Ms. Jayapal tweeted.
She said her vision is becoming a reality.
On President Biden’s signing of a dramatically scaled-down $740 billion version of his Build Back Better bill, Ms. Jayapal took credit for helping her caucus get it passed ahead of the midterm elections.
“Looking at the bill that the Senate passed, it is based on much of the bill that the Progressive Caucus was key to getting passed in the House. There was no bill originally when the infrastructure bill came over to us, but we insisted on drafting it,” Ms. Jayapal told The Times.
During those negotiations last year, liberals’ insistence on their priorities frustrated party leaders and White House officials, who were pushing for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. Ms. Jayapal frequented cable news networks and threatened to hold the bipartisan infrastructure package hostage if legislation to expand the national social safety net was not first in line. Mrs. Pelosi pleaded for quicker approval of the infrastructure measure.
“Good leaders know where the flow of the political will is going,” said Zach Silk, a Seattle activist who worked with Ms. Jayapal before she was elected to office. “The party as a whole isn’t very good at that, and neither are a lot of elected officials. With [Ms. Jayapal’s] background as an organizer, she can kind of see where the political will is headed, and the party moves along towards her.”
Ms. Jayapal was born in India and spent most of her childhood in Indonesia and Singapore. She moved to the U.S. when she was 16 to attend Georgetown University.
She joined Congress in 2017 after serving from 2014 to 2016 in the Washington state Senate. She is the first Indian American woman elected to the U.S. House.
Many Democrats say Ms. Jayapal would exemplify the party’s shift to more diverse leadership. Mrs. Pelosi is running for reelection but hasn’t said whether she plans to seek another term as the leader of House Democrats or as speaker if Democrats hold on to their majority. Two years ago, she suggested that she would step aside for younger leadership.
“I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic Caucus,” Mrs. Pelosi has said.
Ms. Jayapal has been floated as a Pelosi successor alongside Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, currently assistant speaker; Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Democratic Caucus chairman.
Mr. Jeffries would be the first Black speaker. He is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, though he has given extensive campaign donations to members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition and New Democrat Coalition. Mr. Jeffries’ inroads with more centrist Democrats could create a broader support network within the party.
Ms. Jayapal has dismissed speculation that she is vying for a leadership slot, but she has consistently kept herself at the forefront of national political debates.
She recently led a group of her colleagues from the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth to Seattle to tout policies in her city that she wants to duplicate across the country.
Critics view Ms. Jayapal’s use of the bipartisan committee as a tool to advance her leadership bid.
“Some of my colleagues on the committee, including Ms. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez and Jayapal, have used it as a platform to justify the hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes and progressive policies in their Build Back Better agenda,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, Texas Republican.
Ms. Jayapal also has attended a large number of the high-profile hearings of the House Jan. 6 committee, prompting a crush of reporters to seek her reaction to the developments in the probe of the 2021 riot at the Capitol.
“It’s our duty as members of Congress to understand this completely because we know how close we were to losing our democracy that night,” Ms. Jayapal said.
Ms. Jayapal has worked to elect like-minded candidates to the House. She has given support to several liberal contenders in open seats and newly drawn districts who she says could “represent the potential of what our party could be.”
This year, Ms. Jayapal endorsed Jessica Cisneros, a far-left challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who had the backing of the party establishment. After a recount, Mr. Cuellar was declared the winner in June by a razor-thin 289 votes.
Noel Frame, a Democratic Washington state representative who met Ms. Jayapal while she was a community organizer, said she sees the same policy priorities that the lawmaker had before she became a household name.
“She is the same person through and through. It’s just a bigger and bigger platform with every step she’s been able to take,” Ms. Frame said.
As Ms. Jayapal pushes to make her caucus the soul of the party, moderates such as the New Democrat Coalition voice the need to expand the increasingly vulnerable middle.
“New Dems know that making progress is what’s truly progressive,” said Rep. Ann Kuster, New Hampshire Democrat. “A strong center is the key to our governing majority, and our battleground members are an important line of defense against extremist control of Congress. As we look ahead, we must continue to embrace the growth of the moderate members in Congress.”
Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat and former chair of the New Democrats, said Ms. Jayapal’s ability to connect with members by engaging on policy differences with an open mind could serve her well.
“I’m a huge believer in different points of view meeting in good faith,” Mr. Himes said. “Ms. Jayapal comes from a slightly different corner of the Democratic Party than I do, but she does her work and understands her issues.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
• Mica Soellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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